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Daily Howler: A letter writer helps us recall what's at stake in that Times report
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TOO GRAND TO SIT IN THOSE CHAIRS! A letter writer helps us recall what’s at stake in that Times report: // link // print // previous // next //

TOO GRAND TO SIT IN THOSE CHAIRS: What’s happenin’ in North Carolina’s public schools? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have the foggiest. But we got an e-mail from a Chapel Hill reader which we thought was interesting. He too had the impression which was conveyed in Sunday’s New York Times report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/26/05)—the impression that the Wake County schools have really been rockin’:
E-MAIL (/26/05): Here is an added little tidbit on your piece today. I live in Chapel Hill, which boasts one of the premiere school systems in America. We have two high schools in this town, each with somewhere between 10 and 12 percent black students, I think. We do not need to bus. Kids go to one "great" school or the other because here is where they live. But while this school system has the highest SAT scores by far in the state, and one of the highest nationally, the performance of the black kids in this school system on end-of-grade tests lags way behind Raleigh and the rest of the state. Socioeconomic integration in this case has not worked at all, and has perhaps produced the opposite effect.
The mailer believed that Chapel Hill lagged behind Raleigh (Wake County) and the rest of the state. But we looked it up, and it doesn’t seem to be so. Last spring, 79 percent of Chapel Hill’s black kids (grades 3-8) passed the state reading test; 80 percent passed in math. This matches the results for Wake County’s black kids; it’s slightly better than results for the state as a whole. Everyone seems to have the impression that Wake’s minority test scores are very impressive. But as we noted, Wake County’s heralded achievement levels are basically matched all over the state. Despite that, the Times attributed Wake County’s scores to particular aspects of its educational program. As always, when we reason about the lives of black kids, we don’t even seem to feel the need to pretend that we’re being rational. If it feels good, we type it up—and it goes on page one of the Times.

Another mailer asked us to list the things we think urban schools should be doing. We plan to do that in the weeks ahead. But a letter-writer in this morning’s Times helps us remember what’s at stake here. She responds to a recent David Brooks column:

NEW YORK TIMES LETTER (9/27/05): As an instructor at a community college, I am doing my best to prepare students for college-level work. They are ambitious young people doing their best to work against the stratification Mr. Brooks describes, but they lack basic skills that should have been provided as early as grammar school.

The failure rate of ill-prepared college students is not the fault of the university system. Rather, the gaps in students' education must be made up at the community college level, where cogs like me are paid less than $2,000 a course.

E— R—

The writer describes junior college students who “lack basic skills that should have been provided as early as grammar school.” How is it that they lack these skills? We don’t know, but we were reminded of the passage from the recent study which the Times’ Bob Herbert quoted (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/29/05). “By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students,” the study noted. Drink in what that says about low-income kids: After three years, they’re three years behind!

How do these kids get so far behind? In the weeks to come, we expect to focus on that question. (We expect to change the broad focus of TDH, as we’ll explain in the next few weeks.) But in his new book, The Shame of a Nation, Jonathan Kozol suggests a way to answer that question (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/9/05). “You have to go back to the schools themselves to find an answer to these questions,” he says. “You have to sit down in the little chairs in first and second grade, or on the reading rugs with kindergarten kids, and listen to the things they actually say to one another and the dialogue between them and their teachers.” We sat in those chairs for a number of years, and we want to pass on the things we observed there. But one way we won’t answer those questions is by printing the latest feel-good nonsense, as the New York Times did this Sunday. Why are scores so high all across North Carolina? Most likely, because the state tests are quite easy. But whatever the explanation might be, Wake County’s ballyhooed scores are pretty much matched all over the state. It defies comprehension to see the Times “explaining” those scores in the way it attempted, and it leads us back to a troubling theme—the deep dysfunction of our nation’s elites, including the elite called the “press corps.”

Were you appalled by the way Katrina got bungled? Just as dismaying was Sunday’s treatment of Wake County’s minority test scores. But then, our Chapel Hill reader had heard this tale too; he thought his own schools lagged far behind Wake. We’re all mocked when elites fail to function—when our elites are too grand to sit in those little chairs (in dispiriting schools) and find out what’s actually happening.

READERS WANT TO KNOW: Readers have asked us about two recent stories—and we tend to disagree with their viewpoints.

First, several readers wrote to complain about Tim Russert’s session this Sunday with Aaron Broussard, president of Louisiana’s Jefferson County. On the September 4 Meet the Press, Broussard criticized FEMA for its slow response to Katrina. Broussard, a Democrat, praised Governor Blanco—and hit FEMA extremely hard:

RUSSERT (9/4/05): Shouldn’t the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of New Orleans bear some responsibility? Couldn't they have been much more forceful, much more effective and much more organized in evacuating the area?

BROUSSARD: Sir, they were told like me, every single day, "The cavalry's coming," on a federal level, "The cavalry's coming, the cavalry's coming, the cavalry's coming." I have just begun to hear the hoofs of the cavalry. The cavalry's still not here yet, but I've begun to hear the hoofs, and we're almost a week out...

But I want to thank Governor Blanco for all she's done and all the leadership. She sent in the National Guard. I just repaired a breach on my side of the 17th Street canal that the secretary didn't foresee, a 300-foot breach. I just completed it yesterday with convoys of National Guard and local parish workers and levee board people. It took us two and a half days working 24/7. I just closed it.

RUSSERT: All right.

BROUSSARD: I'm telling you most importantly I want to thank my public employees—

RUSSERT: All right.

BROUSSARD: —that have worked 24/7. They're burned out, the doctors, the nurses. And I want to give you one last story and I'll shut up and let you tell me whatever you want to tell me. The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night.

Broussard’s story gained massive attention—but his chronology never seemed to make sense, and it now seems that it was just wrong. The woman in question drowned early in the New Orleans flood, not on Day Five, as Broussard had said. For all of FEMA’s apparent bungling, it’s hard to see how it can be blamed for what occurred in this now-famous incident. (The nursing home’s owners are now under indictment.) By the way: This incident occurred in St. Bernard Parish, not in New Orleans, so Mayor Nagin was in no way involved.

Given the huge publicity this appearance received—and given Broussard’s partisan tilt on September 4—we don’t see why Russert shouldn’t have had him back to clarify what occurred. This Sunday, it would have been perfectly easy for Broussard to say that he simply got his chronology wrong in the chaos and emotion of that first week. But instead, he played the demagogue, questioning the motives of those who have corrected him and still asserting that the woman drowned on the Friday night. Sorry, we thought Broussard’s performance this Sunday was phony. We think Dems will get rid of leaders like this if they want to be widely trusted—if they want to be able to criticize pseudo-cons for their endless dissembling and faking.

Other readers have cited this New Orleans Times-Picayune report about conditions in the Superdome and Convention Center during Katrina’s first week. “Rumors of death greatly exaggerated,” says the headline. This is Brian Thevenot’s nugget:

THEVENOT (9/26/05): That the nation's front-line emergency management believed the body count would resemble that of a bloody battle in a war is but one of scores of examples of myths about the Dome and the Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials, including the mayor and police superintendent. As the fog of warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath has cleared, the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.

"I think 99 percent of it is bulls---," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. "Don't get me wrong, bad things happened, but I didn't see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything...Ninety-nine percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved."

This report has a lot of information—but it’s also weak, in intriguing ways. We’ll disagree with Kevin Drum when he uses the phrase “urban legend” about this, but we think he offers a generally balanced assessment. But what did go on inside these facilities? Here’s part of Thevenot’s report:
THEVENOT: Reports of dozens of rapes at both facilities—many allegedly involving small children—may forever remain a question mark. Rape is a notoriously underreported crime under ideal circumstances, and tracking down evidence at this point, with evacuees spread all over the country, would be nearly impossible. The same goes for reports of armed robberies at both sites.

Numerous people told The Times-Picayune that they had witnessed rapes, in particular attacks on two young girls in the Superdome ladies room and the killing of one of them, but police and military officials said they know nothing of such an incident.

Soldiers and police did confirm at least one attempted rape of a child. Riley said a man tried to sexually assault a young girl, but was "beaten up" by civilians and apprehended by police. It was unclear if that incident was the one that gained wide currency among evacuees.

Again, it’s easy to say that “nothing much happened”—if you weren’t the ones who were there, the ones who may have been in harm’s way. It’s easy to sit a thousand miles distant and construct stories that are ideologically pleasing. For ourselves, we quoted our congressman, Elijah Cummings, saying exactly what Sgt. Lachney said: “Most of these people, probably 99 percent of these people, are wonderful folks, law-abiding.” Indeed, we said that, whenever we saw the tape from those venues, we were struck by the superhuman patience and forbearance being displayed by the flood victims. But for some who love simple stories, 99 percent just isn’t enough. They have to hear pleasing fairy tales—stories describing an imaginary world. We suggest they reread that Times report on Wake County. It will make them feel good inside—and that sometimes seems to be a top motive.

ANOTHER REPORT: What actually happened in these facilities? In the September 15 Washington Post, Will Haygood wrote a lengthy report on the Convention Center. Here’s part of that report:

HAYGOOD (9/15/05): In more than 70 interviews, with both military and law enforcement officials—who were themselves sometimes inside the center—and with many of the survivors who suffered over the course of several nights, a chilling portrait emerges of anarchy and violence, exacerbated by young men from rival housing projects—Magnolia, St. Bernard, Iberville, Calliope.

"Everywhere I went, I saw people with guns in their hands," said Troy Harris, 18. "They were putting guns to people's heads."

Recounting their pleas for milk for their babies, for food, for protection, many survivors described the same sense of bewilderment and anger—broadcast, surreally, on live television. "This is America," one woman shouted into the TV cameras. What she meant was, this is not supposed to happen here.

Is Troy Harris a reliable witness? We’re forced to rely on Haygood’s judgment; and no, there’s no way to construct a perfect report of what actually happened. But there are motives for exaggeration on both sides of this matter. We think, for those who enjoy the real world, 99 percent should be enough. Yes readers, there really is crime in the world—even, sometimes, in New Orleans.